Action! The camera zooms in on a reasonably pleasant, reasonably capable, reasonably skilled adult – that would be me – leaning comfortably on a podium at the front of the Norwood Town Hall. Smiling even. Eager to launch her presentation.
Cue black-and-white flashback, set in the high school just a couple of blocks away: Said reasonably-capable-adult has morphed into a jittery teen, sheer terror stealing her breath as she unveils a class project about, oh I don’t know, something gripping – eskers, bookkeeping theory . . .
In retrospect, maybe it’s not the passage of time that saved the present-day me. Maybe the teen-me just needed better subject matter. It’s hard to get worked up about eskers. At the town hall event, hosted by the Asphodel-Norwood Historical Society, I was waxing eloquent about my two-year passion – a book about my grandmother, Life & Legacy.
And the audience fit my Back to the Future sequel to a tee – relatives, former classmates, a former teacher, a former teacher’s brother, people I recognized from the community, people I should have recognized from the community, and even an old friend brandishing snapshots of the two of us sunbathing on a Nassau beach long ago and far, far away.
There were a few individuals I was meeting for the first time, including two sisters – former neighbours of my Toronto aunt – who had driven in from the States just in time for my presentation. Yikes! No pressure there! (This was almost as scary as knowing my son and his wife were seated in the middle of the audience, supportive 30somethings – who regularly do presentations for work. Best to avoid eye contact.)
But I confess: this was one of those blessed moments when I realized that my awkward, country-girl inner child had managed to lurch into the future after all.
All very self-affirming until I replayed the evening a month later. By this time, a clever Facebook meme had burrowed into my psyche, lending my movie sequel a dark twist.
In the meme, baby boomers – who think of the 1970s as last week – are poked with the revelation that the time span from 1970 to 2022 is the same as the span from 1970 to 1918. Whoa! (Note to fellow baby boomers: if you need a moment, I can pause while you catch your breath …)
When I was an all-knowing teenager in 1970, there was absolutely no question that the year 1918 was Very Ancient History. Heck, it still felt like Very Ancient History as I plunged into my book research during the pandemic. My project revolves around letters my grandmother wrote during the first half of the 20th century, an open window to a remote past full of world wars, health crises, everyday hardships, and limited choices and expectations.
The meme’s message gave me pause: my grandparents, Gilbert Elmhurst and Ruth Birdsall, were married in 1917, buoyed by the hopes and dreams of any young couple. Perhaps my grandmother wasn’t living Very Ancient History – perhaps she was just … living.
Well, at least Grandma’s letters describing a 1905 car trip qualified as Very Ancient History, right? Hold on while I launch my calculator….
Good lord! Using the meme’s premise, 1905 would be the equivalent of 1957! I was just a little kid in 1957 so can’t speak with any authority, but surely anyone who watched Mad Men would agree that by the late 1950s, the first light of a new modern age was dawning. Surely Peggy Olson’s steps into a brave new world can’t be equated to 1905. Right? Right…?
Thank goodness I didn’t try to parse all of this before my Norwood speech. I am not partial to public meltdowns. As part of my speech, I confidently read letter excerpts from my grandmother’s Very Ancient History. I drew parallels to modern life, including the point that I “endured” a pandemic surrounded by conveniences my grandmother could never have imagined.
But now I am thinking about the sprinkling of younger faces in my Norwood audience, 20- and 30-somethings who do not need a meme to see the obvious: baby boomers, who have always thought they invented the world, are past their best-before date.
When I was pointing out that my grandmother’s era did not have handheld computers, streaming services and Amazon deliveries, they were probably thinking: “Yeah, but you baby boomers didn’t have that either! Such sad, dark times! No Internet, cellphones, instant messaging, online banking, remote work options, TikTok, electric cars, international space station…. Sad!”
I think I need to sit down. Because they are right – my own childhood is now Very Ancient History. Here’s a brief look at the evidence:
• As a rural kid, I went to one of the last one-room elementary schools in the province: one teacher, one room, and 30 students spanning eight grades.
• In the summer, my friend Anne and I spent endless hours roaming free, defying the Gods of Danger by climbing trees, biking on gravel roads, and floating down rivers on precarious rafts.
• I can picture my brother Phil and me gawking in awe when our family’s first black-and-white TV crackled to life; we were grateful for our one channel and dubious reception delivered by a high-tech roof antenna.
• I can recall my mom threading mounds of wet laundry through a wringer washing machine before hanging it on the outdoor line, summer or winter. No wonder she called it laundry “day”.
• I remember lining up at the Hastings bank in my late teens so a teller could deposit by summer pay cheque and update my bank book. If I played my cards right, I would get the teller whose brother was my latest crush.
Gee, if only I had my letters from those days – because we did write letters. Perhaps someday someone could discover the letters and write a book about my amazing Very Ancient History.
Oh, wait. Most of today’s 20- and 30-somethings would have trouble reading cursive writing, that essential skill drilled into my little hands by the diligent teacher of that one-room school, who just knew that good penmanship was an important key to a successful future….